For the 10th time, I looked at my watch. If I arrived late, the Cardinal would be cross and uncommunicative, but there was nothing to be done for it.
Every person in the Chinese tour group in front of me wanted a selfie in front of the stacked skulls and crossed bones in the ancient ossarium of the Carthusian monks deep below the sewers of Paris. Until their phones stopped flashing I could not slip past under the chain that closed the circular staircase in the corner and descend to the seventh level where the supernatural still held its own against the encroachment of the world above.
When I first descended into the ancient maze of underground galleries in 2012 (Conjuring the Ghost of Richelieu) I came with waders and sank knee-deep into the foul muck of the ages. Now the tennis shoes of the tourists squeaked complacently over newly-laid linoleum and the souvenir shop at the Paris Sewers Museum up top sold edible skulls of spun sugar.
“Stick around long enough, and you turn into a theme park,” I sighed. The tourists left and I slipped on the rubber galoshes I carried in my Galeries Lafayette bag, along with a large copper spittoon and a magnum of Chateau Petrus.
With a pencil-beam flashlight between my teeth, I felt my way down the worn stone steps into the nameless gloom of the last sublevel. My feet gave way into fetid muck and my lungs fought to ingest the viscous air.
For the third time, I planted the spittoon firmly in the muck, de-corked the magnum of Bordeaux and filled the vessel. Immediately the spirits of the French dead came to drink, but I drove them back with the sign of the Earth Spirit that I had learned from an ancient manuscript from an Antiquariat in Breisgau.
The Cardinal awakes
I didn’t have to wait long; a gelatinous figure in dark cloak and red hat pushed its way through the swarm of spirits that I held at bay, and with a haughty nod, inserted its head into the neck of the spittoon. As it absorbed the wine the translucent shape took on color and the illusion of solidity. It resembled the famous portrait by Phillipe de Champaigne, but sounded like Maurice Chevalier.
“Who disturbs my rest?,” the Cardinal demanded. The voice seemed to come through a distant megaphone.
“Excellency, it is I, Spengler, and I have come to beg your advice about Syria. We appear to be in something of a muddle. If we remove our small contingent of troops from Syria, everyone says that we will have betrayed our Kurdish allies by leaving them to the mercy of their Turkish enemies. If we stay, we offend the Turks, whom we want to set against Iran and its Shi’ite militias in Syria.
“If we leave, the Kurds will no longer fight ISIS for us, and it might regain power that it has lost. But if we stay, the 2,000 American Special Forces in Syria will be at risk from all sides – Iranians, Turks and ISIS. Then again, if we leave, Russia will pick up the pieces and become the most important foreign power in Syria.”
Solving the problem
“What do you want from me?” Richelieu responded.
“How do we solve the problem?”
“Problems,” the Cardinal said with contempt, “are not there to be solved, but to be placed on someone else’s doorstep. It is only your problem if you are lazy and stupid enough to let it be your problem. Make it the problem of the Turks, and the Iranians, and the Syrians, and the Kurds.”
“How can we make it someone else’s problem?”
“Use your brain, if you have one,” said Richelieu. “The Kurds will not go away merely because a few American soldiers leave Syria. They have been there for two thousand years, they have a taste of nationhood in northern Iraq, and they have the best ground troops in the region.
“The Turks say they are terroriste? Eh bien, keep them at arm’s length, but keep the Germans training them with anti-tank missiles. Even better, let a few MANPAD’s salvaged from Qaddafi’s arsenal fall off the back of a truck. That will teach the Turks not to use helicopters in the north of Syria. With good reason, the Turks fear them, and Erdogan cannot persuade his best generals to march against them. When the Turks protest, deny everything.
“There are seven million Kurds in Iran, suffering under the hard hand of the Persians. Tehran already thinks of them as a Fifth Column, and there is no reason not to make the mullahs’ nightmare come true.”
“But if we abandon the Kurds,” I protested, “why should they fight for us?”
“That is a stupid question,” hissed the specter. “For whom shall they fight? Their need for the United States is existential – they shall never have a legitimate state without American support. America’s need for the Kurds is a matter of convenience. They need you more than you need them.
“They have bled before. If they want a state they shall have to bleed for some years to come. It is not your blood! Why do you care? As it is, the Kurds of Turkey have three children, while the ethnic Turks have one or perhaps two, so the natural increase of their population will give the Kurds the upper hand in a quarter century.”
Someone else’s headache
“But what do we do about the Iranians in Syria?”
“That is why you have allies in the region. There is only one reason to have allies, and that is to have others do your dirty work for you. You do not wish to bomb the Revolutionary Guard troops in Syria, but the Israelis will do it.
“Jerusalem, to be sure, was not pleased that you withdrew troops from Syria, but it made clear that as long as Israel had a free hand in Syria and Lebanon, it did not much matter. And do not forget the Turks: They have been rivals to the Persians for a thousand years, and do not want Tehran to repopulate Syria with Shi’ite settlers.
“But Excellency, what do we do about the Russians?”
“What do you want to do about the Russians?,” the Cardinal asked impatiently. “They want the war in Syria to end, so long as their friend Assad remains the victor, and so long as they keep their naval station at Tartus. Syria is a Petri Dish for jihadists, including tens of thousands of exiled Muslims from the Russian Caucasus.
“Putin sleeps better after the suppression of ISIS. You cannot ruin the Russians, so you must negotiate with them. They have no interest in Persian hegemony in the region.”
Let them fight each other
“If I understand you correctly,” said I, “you want us to keep everyone in the region fighting everyone else!”
“Bingueaux!” said the Cardinal. “That is just what I did during the Thirty Years War, and by doing so I ruined Spain, Austria and the German Empire. France became the dominant land power in Europe from the Battle of the Dunes in 1658 to Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812.”
“But you reduced the population of Central Europe by two-fifths!” I protested.
The Cardinal shrugged his gelatinous shoulders. “You have forgotten what I told you the last time you came here. I supported the Protestants of Germany against the Austrian Habsburgs, and then I backed the Danes, and when the Hapburgs beat them, I backed the Swedes.”
He had turned translucent and his voice started to break up. I braced myself for the return of the Gallic horde of ghosts, the grenadiers and grisettes and guilloteeners, but something worse appeared. Colored objects were flying around the walls of the dank chamber in circles that tightened around me. In horror I recognized one of them.
“Pikachu!” I shrieked. Behind him hurtled Raichu and Sandslash and a hundred other apparitions of Pokemon Go. They infiltrated the sewers with the tour group and somehow breached the ectoplasmic barrier between the upper and lower worlds.
Grinning fiendishly they circled closer. I slapped at them helplessly, spun around and blacked out. I awoke next to an empty bottle of Maotai and a week-old copy of the China Daily.